At the root of Dunwitty’s attitude about race is a confidence in the progress that has been made in civil rights in the United States. As Honeycutt (Thomas Jefferson Byrd) says on the Mantan show, dressed up as a blackface Abraham Lincoln, “Four score and seven years ago, they was kicking our ass. … But this is the new millennium!” The agenda that this minstrel show eventually ends up pushing is based on the idea that racism exists only in the past, a relic of a previous era with no relation to the post-racial present. By broadcasting a minstrel show full of outdated racist imagery, they’re suggesting that the only form of racism is this kind of super-obvious stereotyping, which is so blatant that it’s easy to think that racism no longer exists, that there’s no relation between blackface and the much more insidious and undercover racism that keeps black entertainers like Delacroix, his father and Manray ghettoized and marginalized, or the kind of racism that leads to situations like having a roomful of white writers writing for a supposedly black show and providing readymade excuses for the lack of black writers, including a dearth of qualified black people being available.
JB: Perhaps even more significantly, Bamboozled via Mantan explores the ramifications of asserting one’s strength through an attempt to reclaim and redefine words and stereotypes that were designed to be pejorative. In the early days of the Mantan show, the actors wear blackface with a certain amount of excitement. It’s their show. It’s their path to stardom. Thus, their adoption of blackface feels like a symbol of their independence and control—they take ownership of the blackface/minstrel identity so that the identity doesn’t own them. It all makes sense on paper, but in reality it proves problematic. The second time we see Womack (Tommy Davidson), aka Sleep’n Eat, applying the mixture of burned cork to his face, he does so angrily, and Manray looks at himself in the mirror with an expression of disillusionment. The implication of this shift is that blackface is inherently and inescapably vile and demeaning: Manray and Womack can wear blackface without malice and maybe even without insensitivity, but they can never truly wear it with pride, because the negative history of blackface is too powerful to be fully neutralized.
On that note, I’m glad you brought up the meta reference to Lee’s spat with Tarantino, because I can’t help but wonder if this is partly Lee’s attempt to comment on Tarantino’s frequent use of the word “nigger” in his films. Tarantino isn’t trying to be demeaning—shocking, maybe—when he has Samuel L. Jackson’s characters (among others) drop the n-bomb as freely as Martin Scorsese characters drop the f-bomb. Quite the contrary. Tarantino adores and even over-romanticizes black culture, as defined through Blaxploitation films, and it’s fairly obvious he thinks there’s little more emboldening than a black person saying “nigger.” But while that might make sense on paper, again in reality it proves problematic. No sensible person can argue that “nigger” is “just a word.” If it were “just a word,” Tarantino wouldn’t be so giddy about using it. So while Tarantino seems to believe he can rewrite the definition of “nigger,” it’s worth asking whether all he’s really doing is desensitizing his audience to the word and—this is crucial—to all the hateful implications buried within it.
One of the most disturbing moments in Bamboozled is the one just after we’ve watched Manray and Womack don blackface for the second time. As they stare into their makeup mirrors backstage, we can hear the sounds of Honeycutt exciting the studio audience, inciting them into a spirited, anticipatory chant of “Niggers! Niggers!” As with their blackface attire, the audience means no harm with their chant. In fact, much like Tarantino, they’re trying to express their fondness. But the combination of that chant with those images of two men in blackface is particularly revolting, and it sets us up for what I think is the most important moment in the film, the one much later when Manray appears on stage in street clothes and stuns a raucous, standing crowd into silence. This is the moment when Manray delivers his Howard Beale speech, but his words are remarkably irrelevant. His statement is made simply through his refusal to perpetuate the Mantan show’s myth, thereby breaking the spell of mutual and willful blindness and holding the audience accountable for their behavior. Meanwhile, Lee’s statement is made through shots of the crowd’s stunned yet immediately understanding reaction, which implies that underneath all the external insensitivity and self-delusion, the audience knew that a minstrel show was revolting and shameful all along.
EH: Even more stunning, and revolting, is Delacroix’s lame attempt to pass off the moment as yet another joke, saying that they’re going to take Mantan out back and whip him. That’s a shocking moment because it drives home just how easy it is to be desensitized to this kind of racism, to the point where Delacroix doesn’t even seem to realize that he’s crossing a line by so nakedly evoking the violence that had been the subtext of the Mantan show all along, as in the scene where the plantation owner finds Mantan and Sleep’n Eat in the chicken coop and starts shooting at them with a shotgun. As you say, this kind of history can never be neutralized, which is what Delacroix and the other showrunners don’t seem to realize. Dunwitty, in particular, likes to think that things have changed enough that there’s no longer any need to be P.C., no need for any special attention to matters of race, even though almost all of his staff is white with only token black writers and executives. Through marketing and the sheep-like mentality of entertainment audiences, they’re able to cram this stuff down people’s throats for a while, and even convince people that it’s great, but eventually it’s seen for what it is, an ugly reminder of the ways in which black people have been treated in the United States for much of the country’s history.
Lee provides this reminder himself, throughout the film, by cutting in excerpts from various pieces of entertainment: Birth of a Nation, racial caricatures in cartoons, The Jeffersons and Good Times, and the old Hollywood blackface comedians who provided the principal impetus for this film, those guys like Mantan Moreland and Bert Williams who did their pop-eyed, subservient, buffoonish schtick while playing sidekicks, chauffeurs and servants for white stars. There’s also plenty of iconography from the history of blackface, which Delacroix begins accumulating after receiving the rather sarcastic gift of a “jolly nigger bank” from Sloan, who seems to be giving it to him as a not-too-subtle way of calling him a sellout. Soon enough, whenever Lee shows Delacroix’s office, he’s surrounded with more and more blackface memorabilia, presumably displayed in a spirit of reclaiming the imagery, but again, he can’t escape its negative connotations, and the more blackface junk he piles on the shelves of his office, the more all those big lips and wide eyes seem to be mocking him. It’s obviously important for Lee that this film be seen in its context, as a critique of a long history of racism and marginalization of black performers in American cultural history, a critique that includes the more subtle ways in which that history extends into the present day.
JB: That’s well said. You know, the timing of this conversation is interesting in a few ways, but one of them is this: Bamboozled ends with a montage retrospective of film/TV history that’s quite similar to the one at the end of Martin Scorsese’s 2011 ode Hugo, except of course in tone and intent. Whereas Scorsese’s film pays nostalgic tribute to cinema history (and in particular the works of Georges Méliès), Lee’s montage is mournful, featuring clips of white actors in blackface, black actors in caricature roles and cartoon characters drawn according to degrading stereotypes. The Bamboozled montage is set to a musical arrangement by Terence Blanchard that’s so mellow and inviting that it could have just as easily scored the uplifting Hugo sequence, except that when paired with these shameful images it takes on a funereal tone. Lee’s montage isn’t angry, it’s worth underlining. In fact, while it’s confrontational, Bamboozled isn’t a particularly angry film as a whole. Instead, the mood is melancholy, full of sadness for this country’s troubled past and for the way those sins of yesterday still affect us today.
Bamboozled’s climactic montage (actually the first of two montages, because the closing credits scroll over images of those antique blackface toys) concludes with clips of black actors in relatively straightforward “Yes, sir” and “Yes, ma’am” portrayals of plantation-era servants in which offensiveness isn’t found in the dramatic performances themselves so much as the historic bases for those performances. In other words, those servant performances have less in common with Manray-as-Mantan’s minstrel antics than with, say, Viola Davis’ performance in The Help, the 2011 movie that enraged some critics and audiences by rewriting history at least as often as it reflects it. In a recent interview with Davis and her costar Octavia Spencer, PBS talk show host Tavis Smiley noted that while he was hopeful that both actresses would win Oscars for their performances he was “ambivalent” about what they would be winning for, expressing frustration that more than seven decades after Hattie McDaniel won an Academy Award for playing a servant, Davis and Spencer might be relegated to the same.
Smiley’s ambivalence is understandable, but Davis’ response was just as compelling: “That very mind-set that you have and that a lot of African-Americans have is absolutely destroying the black artist,” she said. “The black artist cannot live in a revisionist place. The black artist can only tell the truth about humanity, and humanity is messy. People are messy. Caucasian actors know that. … We as African-American artists are more concerned with image and message and not execution, which is why every time you see your images they’ve been watered down to the point where they are not realistic at all. … My whole thing is, do I always have to be noble? As an artist you’ve got to see the mess.”
“The Mess” seems to me the perfect way to describe not just the complicatedness of humanity but also the predicament of the modern black artist, which is one of the things Bamboozled explores. Smiley concluded his interview with Davis and Spencer by saying, “Let’s move on. Let’s tell some other stories about the character and the complexity and the humanity of black people.” But while that sounds straightforward, especially when said in relation to a troublesome film like The Help, Bamboozled shows that it isn’t so simple, because while certain roles have the potential to offend by reestablishing negative stereotypes (as true to life as they might be in some cases), other more politically correct roles have the potential to offend by straying too far from the typical “black” experience, as if black culture and/or the difficult economic realities facing many African-Americans are something to be ashamed of. Thus, Davis’ comments are interesting because in fact her character in The Help is extremely noble in terms of character and humanity; it’s the character’s predicament and the oversimplified film around her that are ignoble. Davis should have nothing to apologize for, and yet in press tours for the film she’s constantly been on the defensive.
EH: I haven’t seen The Help, and have little desire to, but I can only imagine what Lee would have to say about it. Not that Bamboozled ever suggests that there are any easy answers for black artists, and a version of the debate between Smiley and Davis is at the core of this film, which is all about trying to move on from the past without forgetting it, which is an extraordinarily difficult tightrope to walk. On the one hand, there’s entertainment that wallows in negative stereotypes, like Mantan. For Lee, as outrageous as the idea of a modern minstrel show is, there’s plenty of modern entertainment that fulfills this stereotype without the actual blackface. In real life, Lee has lobbed these accusations at Tyler Perry, among others. That’s the point of the bluntly parodic “Timmi Hillnigger” commercial: “If you want to keep it really real, never get out of the gee-to, stay broke, and continue to add to my multibillion dollar corporation, keep buying all my gear. … We keep it so real, we give you the bullet holes.” Lee is pointing out how much of modern culture targeted at black people subliminally delivers messages like that—that to “keep it real” is to live up, or rather down, to a certain stereotype of blackness. That’s why, when Delacroix rattles off the character traits of his proposed new stars—ignorant, dull-witted, lazy, unlucky—Dunwitty squeals with delight after each one, bouncing in his chair, unable to contain his excitement. “That’s exactly what I’m looking for!”
On the other hand, Lee is also critical of the kinds of Cosby-like, whitewashed shows that Delacroix was making for his network before Mantan, which in their eagerness to present very positive images of blackness also don’t really say much about the black experience or the real lives of black people. In some ways, this double-barreled criticism is a little self-serving—what’s the right kind of black movie? The kind Spike Lee makes, of course—but it also suggests the legitimate problems of black entertainment, which for much of American history has been saddled with stereotypes and limiting roles. I don’t think Lee’s suggesting that every black movie has to be Bamboozled as a result, but he is advocating for an awareness of this history, a refusal to act in ways that simply feed into the opposing stereotypes of the violent gangster and the subservient “house nigger.” That’s why so much of the mockery in Bamboozled isn’t simply directed at the characters within the film but resonates outwards to real incidents, like Delacroix’s faux-humble award acceptance speeches, which parody real speeches by Cuba Gooding Jr. and Ving Rhames that Lee had criticized for buffoonery and a “yes, massa” tone towards the white-run entertainment industry.
JB: And that’s where the debate gets really messy. I mean, why should Adam Sandler have a monopoly on cartoonish movies that appeal to the lowest common denominator of humor? Shouldn’t Tyler Perry be able to get in on that? Likewise, why should Roberto Benigni get to be the only one who acts like a clown at the Oscars? And why should Sean Penn get to be the only one to act obnoxiously humble in the presence of a fellow nominee when delivering his acceptance speech? While I greatly admire the way Bamboozled avoids oversimplification, this is where some of its implications become potentially hypocritical. Because in implying that Gooding and Rhames were being “Grateful Negroes” in their famous Academy Awards and Golden Globe Awards moments, Lee isn’t just distrusting their sincerity, he’s also eliminating such behavior from the realm of acceptability. In other words, he’s delivering a not-so-subliminal message that to “keep it real” means avoiding those kinds of displays. It’s a disheartening implication, less because of where Lee draws those lines than because the mere existence of such lines creates a no-win situation. Once again, “keeping it real” means being sincere unless one’s sincerity violates the black code, in which case outward appearances trump truth, and Viola Davis’ words seem particularly astute.
That said, while I think Bamboozled has moments of hypocrisy within it, I want to be clear that I think Lee is very aware of that hypocrisy, at least broadly speaking. One thing we’ve yet to mention explicitly is that Bamboozled is a critique of the treatment of blacks by blacks as much as it’s a critique of the system (although, no doubt, the overarching hypothesis suggests that the system is the primary influencer and that the other dominos fall from there). One of my favorite images of the film finds Delacroix in his apartment, kneading his bald head in confusion after the pilot taping of Mantan turns out to be a rousing success. Sitting in the dark, Delacroix stares into his computer screen at a cross-section diagram of a slave ship, which serves as Lee’s blatant acknowledgement that Delacroix is ever aware that his minstrel show is institutionalizing racism. Equally telling is the experience of Sloan, who is called a “house nigger” by her own brother, then is dismissed as “the help” by Delacroix and then is paradoxically called Delacroix’s puppet and manipulator by Manray after he learns that Sloan had slept with Delacroix prior to their relationship, which Manray assumes was a calculated business tactic.
Naturally, Sloan is offended. “It’s funny how a man always has to perceive an attractive young lady as having to fuck or suck somebody in order to get to the top,” she says in her own defense. “It doesn’t have anything to do with the fact that I’m intelligent maybe? Or have anything to do with the fact that I have drive?” The underlying message of that scene, when coupled with her earlier argument with her brother, is that whether a black person is perceived as an upstanding “house nigger” or a scheming “field nigger” doesn’t matter. A “nigger” is a “nigger”—and not Tarantino’s super-cool kind—and all the negative stereotypes attached to that identity can create prejudice between blacks and other blacks as easily as between whites and blacks.
EH: That scene with Sloan certainly shows that Lee understands just how tricky and contradictory the situation can be, creating a damned-if-you-do-damned-if-you-don’t dilemma for black entertainers and professionals, where even when they succeed, when they beat the odds and make it to the top in a game rigged in favor of white people, they’re not given credit for their successes. It’s worse for women like Sloan, who also have to deal with sexism and accusations of sexual manipulation, but even when that’s not a consideration, there will inevitably be accusations of tokenism, a suggestion that any successful black person only got to where they are through the help of affirmative action. That implication is certainly there when Delacroix’s all-white writing staff scrambles to justify the lack of any black writers in the room, suggesting that there were no qualified black people available, that the only way they could have hired someone black was by lowering their standards.
At the same time, you’re right that Lee is equally interested in the way that the system makes black people act towards each other. In that respect, the Lee film that Bamboozled most resembles is School Daze, which also deals with conflicting, opposing images of blackness: a black fraternity at an all-black college representing the buffoons and those who are trying to fit in and assimilate with whites, as opposed to a group of radical, politicized students who extol racial consciousness and awareness of African identity. That film is very awkward in typical Lee fashion, but it’s definitely a forerunner to the ideas he’s exploring in Bamboozled. Notably, School Daze opens with a montage of photographs from black American history (including the same slave ship cross-section that Delacroix looks at) and closes with a literal call to “wake up” that seems to be targeted specifically at black audiences, with Laurence Fishburne’s Dap turning to the camera and demanding that the audience think about the questions of black roles and stereotypes raised by the film.
Similarly, Bamboozled is pitched as a wake-up call. There might be some hypocrisy in Lee’s approach when he seems to be setting down his own rules for what it means to “keep it real,” but mostly the film isn’t advocating for any particular model of black behavior so much as it’s asking people to simply think about these issues, to be aware of the lessons of the past.
JB: And to be aware of the problems of the present, I agree. The Help certainly isn’t the first movie to grossly oversimplify racial or social issues, and so especially in this era of extreme Kool-Aid drinking, in which MSNBC, Fox News and so many other media channels (television and otherwise) peddle the notion that anyone who disagrees with you must be ignorant or pure evil, it’s refreshing to watch a movie so comfortable with its loose ends, a movie that’s satisfied with being a wake-up call rather than needing to impart a strict dogma of its own. Sure, Bamboozled is stagy. Sure, it’s blatant. (When Sloan isn’t being demeaned by the men around her she’s usually stopping to give them, and us, a history lesson.) But I don’t see how it would be possible to watch this movie without being at least sporadically unsettled by it, and that’s half the battle. Bamboozled is designed to spark reevaluation, and to do that it needs to shock us from complacency. It does that.
The movie may be hypocritical in spots, but that’s okay because it’s genuine where it counts. Unlike Clint Eastwood’s Gran Torino, for example, Lee never makes the mistake of thinking he can condemn these hateful stereotypes and revel in them at the same time. Blackface should make us uncomfortable, and so Lee keeps upping the ante to make sure we never accept it. First there’s the shock value of seeing Manray and Womack in the minstrel show; then there’s the shock value of the Halloween costumes and a packed studio audience in blackface; then there’s Dunwitty attending a Mantan taping in blackface; then there’s the montage of all those blackface movie moments, including a scene from Holiday Inn with Bing Crosby; and then there’s the montage of all those despicable antique toys. “Always keep ’em laughing” is Delacroix’s mission statement, imparted by his father, but while Bamboozled is an often funny film, each and every laugh is chased with bile—the flavor of knowing that just beyond the joke is a bitter, ugly truth.